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2005-09, 347, Book Reviews, Colin Steele, Libraries


The Bodleian Library: A Subject Guide to the Collections. Gregory Walker, Mary Clapinson, and Lesley Forbes. Eds. Oxford, Bodleian Library. 2005. 180pp. 2005 ISBN 1-85124-079-9. £19.95 Stg.

The Bodleian Library is one of the world’s great academic libraries. Dr Reg Carr, Bodley’s Librarian, states in his Foreword to The Bodleian Library: A Subject Guide to the Collections, that the Bodleian is now entering its fifth century of continuous existence. It is therefore surprising, as Carr notes, that, until this present volume, “there has been no comprehensive overview of the development of the Bodleian’s collections, and no means by which either the general or the specialist reader can come to appreciate, within the space of a single volume, the entire intellectual content of the Library, in all its many forms”.

Walker, Clapinson and Forbes bring together twenty nine essays, by forty past and present Bodleian staff specialists, which document the collections by either subject or form. Topics covered include English literature, music, North America, East Asia, pictorial resources, and printed ephemera. The chapters also include select bibliographies of publications, catalogues, and other research resources relevant to the subjects.

Historically, the first significant growth in Bodley collections came as a result of the agreement for legal deposit in 1610 with the Stationers Company. Even before that time, however, acquisitions had been fairly imaginative, not only in the breadth of collecting but also in the early acceptance of the need for multiple copies. Thus in 1605, two copies of the first edition of Don Quixote were bought in Spain because the buyers thought this book was likely to be a popular item in the collection and these were placed in Duke Humfrey’s Library. Material also flowed in from the East, while large collections, such as those of John Selden with 8,000 volumes, included rare material from Mexico.

Donations rather than purchases were the dominant driver for most of the eighteenth century, until in 1780 the University granted the Bodleian the proceeds arising from reader charges and a share of students’ matriculation fees. Higher education charges for students thus had an early basis! This enabled the library to buy a Gutenberg Bible in 1793 for £100.

The Canonici collection of manuscripts bought for around £5,500 in 1817 was the most expensive purchase since the Library’s foundation. The nineteenth century also saw major acquisitions but, again as a precursor to more modern trends, periodical subscriptions began to take up an increasing share of the expenditure. The 1920s and 1930s were still heavily dependent on legal deposit, although books and periodicals in major genres, such as crime and science fiction, were often rejected and had to be acquired in later decades. The John Johnson Collection, totalling over a million items, which leads the chapter on Printed Ephemera, is the prime example of material which was once rejected as not required for the Bodleian collections.

The forty four colour illustrations provide a fascinating microcosm of the riches within the collections. These include the Sayings of Jesus, a single leaf from a papyrus codex of the third century AD; the Annals of Innisfallen, the oldest manuscript of any surviving Irish historical text; the only known copy of Shakespeare’s printed Venus and Adonis (1593); an English songsheet with probably the first music edition of Yankee Doodle; a Franz Kafka notebook; the earliest surviving manuscript of La Chanson de Roland; Buddhist canonical texts; and Mexican pictographic manuscripts. A final section lists the principal special collections, while a comprehensive index includes authors, sponsors, and donors of collections.

The editors state: “the Bodleian has never lacked, and continues to welcome, the interest of users and others prepared to tell it what should be collected and to comment on its adequacy of coverage”. Since the book was published, the Bodleian has received a deluge of recent publicity, not all of it favourable as to its future strategies and collection policies. Giles Barber, the former Librarian of the Taylorian, has recently stated in the Oxford Magazine (issue 241): “The Bodleian has long been a major centre of Western culture … but the recent fall-off in non-English language  supporting holdings is marked. … The maintenance of these great collections similarly requires both a linguistic knowledge … and a deep historical and cultural one”. Barber further states: “Without them” (i.e. relevant qualified staff) “Oxford … will no longer even be able to see itself as a worldclass place”.

At the end of the day, however, whatever the criticisms and funding crisis, the Bodleian remains a treasure house of, and for, global civilization. The current volume, priced at a most reasonable level, is an essential key for unlocking the doors to the riches of the collections.

Colin Steele



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